NFL Concussion Settlement

Background of the NFL Concussion Settlement

The idea that football-related concussions need to be taken seriously is nothing new. As far back as 1933, the NCAA’s medical handbook recommended that concussed players receive rest and constant supervision. Then in 1952, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine urged players who suffered three concussions to leave football forever.

Despite decades of evidence, the NFL did not formally address the concussion issue until 1994 when Commissioner Paul Tagliabue established the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (MTBI) committee. The committee simply denied any risk from repeated concussions. The appointed chair of the committee even told Sports Illustrated in 1994 that “concussions are part of the profession, an occupational risk.”

Just months after the formation of the MTBI, Chicago Bears fullback Merrill Hoge announced his retirement from football due to repeated concussions that left him unable to recognize his wife. Three doctors advised him to leave the NFL for good.

NFL’s History of Denial

Paul Tagliabue, who served as the NFL Commissioner until 2006, consistently dismissed concussions as a problem for players. In December 1994, he spoke at a panel on the future of sports and called concussions a “pack journalism issue.”

A 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined the effect of recurrent concussions on NCAA football players. The researchers concluded that players who suffer from concussions are more likely to have future concussive injuries. This, they said, may also contribute to a slower recovery of neurological function.

The NFL published its own study in Neurosurgery to dispute the findings of that study. Here’s what the MTBI wrote about the researchers:

“They concluded that there may be an increased risk of repeat concussive injuries and there may be a slower recovery of neurological function after repeat concussions in those have a history of previous concussions. The results of this present NFL study do not support those conclusions.”

In yet another study published in Neurosurgery the same year, the NFL even went so far as to suggest NFL players can better withstand concussions and brain trauma than the general population.

“One of the other processes that may account for some of these differences between NFL players and the general population might be deemed to be a type of artificial selection. ... As a result of this winnowing process, those players who ultimately play in the NFL are probably less susceptible to MTBI and prolonged post-concussion syndrome than the general population.”

This strong denial by the NFL that repeated concussions to its players causes long-term brain injuries continues to this day.

Details of the Historic NFL Settlement

By 2011, thousands of retired players began taking action against the league for not protecting its players and for denying the science of concussions and brain trauma. Lawyers for the roughly 4,500 former players argued that the league concealed and denied emerging science about concussions for decades.

In August 2013, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle the NFL concussion lawsuit to cover the medical costs of those who suffered from brain injuries. Despite a few objectors, an April 2016 appellate court ruling upheld the settlement, which could provide nearly $1 billion to retired players.

The settlement money covers the more than 20,000 retired players from the NFL for the next 65 years. The league estimates as many as 6,000 former players could develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia as a result of concussive injuries.

Why Did the NFL Agree to a Settlement?

Even though the league agreed to provide benefits to players diagnosed with brain injuries due to concussions, the NFL still refused to admit any fault. After the settlement was announced, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insisted there was no admission of guilt and that “there was no recognition that anything was caused by football.”  

So, why did the NFL agree to the settlement?

The settlement protects the NFL from additional legal battles over traumatic brain injuries, which could have cost the league billions of dollars in the long run. On top of financial implications, the league would have been open to more scrutiny, revealing potentially embarrassing information.

The news documentary Frontline reported that it would have unearthed details about the NFL’s much-maligned MTBI committee as well as open up players health records going back to the 1940s. The NFL now has some protection against lawsuits without having to air its dirty laundry.

Who is Included in the NFL Concussion Settlement?

The settlement covers retired football players of the National Football League, American Football League, World League of American Football, NFL Europe League, and NFL Europa. The settlement also extends to immediate family members of retired players who are incapacitated or deceased.

Settlement money is meant for three benefits. Retired players may receive money for exams to find any unknown neuro-cognitive impairment. Monetary damages are also available to those diagnosed with ALS, Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, dementia, or CTE after death. Finally, a portion is set aside for education programs related to football safety.